25 Jul

I Asked Believing But Didn’t Receive

As I meditated on the life of Joseph this past week found in the book of Genesis, I began to wonder about Joseph’s prayer life.  I mean, Joseph was a man of God, right?  Didn’t Joseph ever pray in the midst of his calamities?  In the pit, surely Joseph earnestly prayed to God that he would be restored back to his father’s house.  How about as a slave to the Ismaelites as they caravanned to Egypt?  In Potiphar’s house as a slave?  As a inmate in Pharaoh’s prison?  No prayers are recorded, but surely he, if he was a man of God, must have prayed earnestly.  Yet in every occasion, Joseph got a “no” from God.

You and I have certainly had that happen as well.  We’ve prayed earnestly, believing that God would answer “yes.”  We’ve prayed:

  • Lord, please let my loved one live.
  • Lord, please let me marry that certain person.
  • Lord, please give me that job.
  • Lord, please heal my body.

Nevertheless, your loved one still died, that certain person married somebody else, that boss never hired you, and your body is still diseased.  Instead of a “yes” from God, you received a “no.”  To be honest, the “no” has thrown you for a loop because you’ve read Scripture that says that whatever you ask for will come to pass.  You’ve read passages like:

  • Mark 11:20-24, As they were passing by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered from the roots up. 21 Being reminded, Peter *said to Him, “Rabbi, look, the fig tree which You cursed has withered.” 22 And Jesus *answered saying to them, “Have faith in God. 23 “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 24 “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.
  • Matthew 21:20-22, Seeing this, the disciples were amazed and asked, “How did the fig tree wither all at once?” 21 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 “And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.”
  • Matthew 7:7-11, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 “For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 “Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 “Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!

You asked.  You believed.  But it still wasn’t granted.  What’s up with that?!  It’s caused you trouble in your heart and your mind because you were standing on the promise of a “yes.”  My hope is to help you understand the “no.”

Basically, we have four options:

  1. Jesus was wrong.  Jesus meant well, but he really didn’t know what He was talking about.
  2. Jesus is just speaking to the 12 disciples/apostles.  The power of prayer and the privilege of a guaranteed favorable answer isn’t meant for us.  It died with the apostles.
  3. You didn’t have enough faith.  You must have doubted.  You should have tried harder.  Then God would have been moved by you.
  4. You didn’t understand Jesus’ promise in light of all the Scripture.  Other passages of Scripture qualify these seemingly absolute and all-inclusive promises.

As for a quick evaluation, first, Jesus is never wrong.  He is the infallible, inerrant God who always speaks truth.  Second, these passages were meant to encourage us to pray.  If the power and privilege died with the apostles, then these passages would be false encouragement.  Third, I think one of the meanest things that a person can say to another is, “You just didn’t have enough faith.  Your wife would have lived if you had just prayed more.”  That’s unloving and untrue.  We do not have faith in faith or faith in ourselves.  Our faith is in God who does whatever He pleases (Psalm 115:3, Psalm 135:6).  To “believe,” as referenced in the above passages on prayer, isn’t knowing without a shadow of a doubt that God will grant your request, but rather knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is able to grant your request if He so wills.  With all that said then, I’m going with the fourth option.

The Scripture texts on asking and receiving are not blank checks given to us by God with no restrictions.  There are certainly qualifications to the promises.  I want to look at three.  God answers “yes” only to prayers that are…

Asking for Good Things

The first qualification is found in the Matthew 7:7-11 passage quoted above.  Notice that the relationship talked about here between God and man is a father to a child.  God is certainly our heavenly Father, and we are certainly His children through Jesus Christ.  Jesus is saying in this passage that if an earthly father knows how to give good gifts to his children, then certainly our heavenly Father knows how to give good gifts us, His children.  That’s certainly true.  God will always give us good gifts.  If we ask for a fish, He won’t give us a snake.  Nevertheless, we often ask for a snake unwittingly, and when we do, God will not give it to us.  Furthermore, sometimes we ask for a fish, but what we need is a loaf of bread.  Even though you didn’t want a loaf of bread, your heavenly Father knows what’s best.

My son Zachariah will be 5-years-old in October.  He would absolutely love, love, love for me to go out and get him a big ol’ ninja sword, but he can forget it.  He’s asked me many times, begging and pleading, but no matter how much he asks, I will not grant his request.  There’s nothing wrong with ninja swords.  It just wouldn’t be good for him to have one.  I would probably end up disemboweled, and his brother Elijah would probably end up dismembered.  There would definitely be a lot of blood!  Therefore, I will not give one to him.

It’s the same way with our heavenly Father.  He knows best.  Therefore, when we ask believing, we shouldn’t demand.  We should come in trust and surrender knowing that God loves us and will spare no good thing to us.  Furthermore, we should keep in mind that God’s ultimate good for us is to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ as Romans 8:28-29 tells us, And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren. Therefore, sometimes the “good” stuff that God gives is actually trials and tribulations meant to refine and edify us.

The Apostle Paul comes to mind here.  Paul tells in 2 Corinthians 12:7, Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! Whatever this thorn in the flesh was, Paul prayed three times to God to take it away.  Now if anybody was going to pray believing, it would be the Apostle Paul.  Yet God said “no.”  We get the reason why and Paul’s reaction in 2 Corinthians 12:9, And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Paul realized that that the thorn in his flesh was actually a good gift from God because through it, he was being conformed to the image of Christ.

So, if it’s not good for us, God will not give it to us no matter how much we ask for it and no matter how much we believe we’ll receive it.

Asked with the Right Motive

The second qualification is found in James 4:2-3, You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.  This passage seems to have a selfish desire for money as its focus, but in general, it’s pointing to wanting something for the wrong reason.  Numerous reasons could be listed here.  You could be motivated by selfishness, pride, fear, greed, laziness, etc. James says that God says “no” to prayer requests made with the wrong motivations because if God were to give it to us, we wouldn’t use it to glorify Him.

We must constantly check our hearts to see what our motivation really is.  We can say one thing with our lips, but our hearts are naked before God.  He knows our exact motivation.  So, asked with the wrong motive, God will not give it to us no matter how much we ask for it and no matter how much we believe we’ll receive it.

In Accordance with God’s Will

The final qualification is found in 1 John 5:14-15, This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him. God is all-wise, which means that He not only knows what is best but that He also knows the best way to accomplish the best.  God is also all-knowing, which means that He not only knows the past, present, and future but that He also knows what would happen if one variable changed.  We are the opposite.  In our finitude and weakness, we tend to be foolish instead of wise and ignorant instead of knowledgeable.  In the end, we simply don’t know what’s best, but God does.  Furthermore, as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, He has the right to rule and reign it.  His will should be done and is being done.  This news is incredibly good!

Can you imagine if God always did our will?  The following illustration might be somewhat flippant and lightweight, but the movie Bruce Almighty comes to mind.  Life just isn’t going the way Bruce would like it to go, and so he throws a fit with God.  God then decides to teach him a lesson by letting Bruce be god for a while.  The one scene that stands out in my mind is the one where Bruce is hearing all of these prayer requests at once.  It’s driving him crazy so, in his almightiness, he converts the prayer requests into emails.  He then begins to respond speedily, one by one to the prayers but quickly grows tired.  Then in one bulk move, he hits the “reply to all” button and responds “yes.”  Every person got exactly what they asked for.  You can see the movie clip here.  Soon thereafter though, Bruce realizes that he’s made a tragic mistake.  The world is in utter chaos.  There’s rioting in the street.  Millions of people won the lottery, which meant that they each got pocket change.  I’m sure you get the point the movie is trying to make.  We ask from a single, little viewpoint, but God answers from the big picture.  It would simply be unwise for God to say “yes” every time.

But now let me give you a weighty, biblical example.  Jesus, on the night that He was betrayed by Judas, went to the Garden of Gethsemane.  He was deeply troubled knowing that His time of suffering was soon at hand.  He tells the inner three disciples in Matthew 26:38, My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me. Then He proceeds to pray saying in Matthew 26:39, My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will. Just a few moments later He prays again in Matthew 26:42, My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done. Luke 22:44 tells us that Jesus was so troubled and prayed so fervently that His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground. Surely this example is the greatest one of a person asking in full belief (Matthew 21:22).  Jesus prayed with perfect faith, sharing His desire that He’d rather not go through the crucifixion, the imputation of man’s sin, the wrath of God, and death, but nevertheless, Jesus got a “no” from the Father.  It was the Father’s will that Jesus endure these things.

The same is true when we pray.  If what we ask for is in accordance with God’s will, it will be granted to us.  Otherwise, we get a “no.”  No matter the answer, we trust in the wisdom of God and the goodness of His plan.  So, if it’s not in accordance with God’s will, God will not give it to us no matter how much we ask for it and no matter how much we believe we’ll receive it.

So, in summary, God answers “yes” only to prayers that are:

  1. asking for good things.
  2. asked with the right motive.
  3. in accordance with God’s will.

So How Should We Pray Then

We should pray and pray often.  We should pray believing, which is to know that God is able if He so wills.  We should pray, making our requests known but also seeking to be bent to God’s wisdom and good plan.  We should pray as Jesus prayed—fervently and wanting God’s will to be done.

In fact, Jesus gave us an example of how to pray in Matthew 6:7-13:

And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. 8 So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him. 9 Pray, then, in this way: “Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

Notice that even here, Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done, which is a way of saying, “Father, I trust you to do exactly what’s best and to give me exactly what I need.”  May that be the spirit in which we go forth in lifting up prayers and receiving answers to prayers!

18 Jul

Why Do Bad Things Happen?

Bad things happen.  The reality of calamity isn’t news to anybody.  Just live long enough and you’ll know it firsthand.  But the “why” question is usually what’s burning on everybody’s heart.

Do you ever wonder why bad things happen?  I’m not talking about the immediate cause, like the accelerator sticking on a Toyota Camry.  I’m talking about ultimate cause.

Now, the atheist has no trouble in this area.  He doesn’t believe in a good god or any god for that matter.  From his perspective, life is just hard, and then you die.  Crap happens…deal with it.  He sees the world as a dog-eat-dog place ruled by natural laws such as the Darwinian survival of the fittest.  Calamity is just a natural thing to the atheist.

But for we theists—those of us who believe in God’s existence and personal activity in the world—calamity is not natural.  The world as we know it was created with no bad thing in it and will eventually be restored to that state at the end of the age, but for now, we live in the in-between time filled with suffering and evil—calamity—which leads us to wonder why a good God would allow bad things to happen.  God is good, yet there is misery and evil in the world.  Indeed, that’s sort of a conundrum.

My hope in this essay is to begin to resolve the conundrum and answer the “why” question.  In order to do this, we must first start with a brief doctrine of God.  Three things must be understood as we approach this question.

God

God Is Creator of All Things

First, God is the creator of all things.  We read in Genesis 1:1, In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Everything that exists finds its beginning in God—flowers, stars, dogs, rocks, black holes, angels (which include Satan and the other demons), humanity, etc.

God Is Sovereign

Second, God is sovereign, which means that He rules over His creation.  He’s in control.  Since He’s Creator, it’s only right that He’s also Ruler.  I’m sure you know well that simple song celebrating God’s sovereignty “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”  He certainly does.

God’s in control, but to what extent?  Ephesians 1:11 tells us, also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.  Notice how the Scripture describes God here.  God is the one who works all things after the counsel of His will.  “All” includes everything.  Indeed, the entirety of Scripture, which is God’s self-revelation, describes Him as completely sovereign.  The great preacher Charles Spurgeon rightly described the extent of God’s sovereignty in this way, “I believe that every particle of dust that dances in the sunbeam does not move an atom more or less than God wishes—that every particle of spray that dashes against the steamboat has its orbit, as well as the sun in the heavens—that the chaff from the hand of the winnower is steered as the stars in their courses.  The creeping of an aphid over the rosebud is as much fixed as the march of the devastating pestilence—the fall of sere leaves from a poplar is as fully ordained as the tumbling of an avalanche,” (“God’s Providence”).

Friend, God is intimately involved in the affairs of this world to the extent that nothing happens in the universe that God has not determined to bring about or let happen, including righteous, evil, and amoral events.  God’s decision to act in this way is what we might call His secret will or sovereign will.  If it happens, God at least allowed it to happen and (here’s the most important part) has a purpose for it happening.

I pray that this will be good news to you.  Whatever tragedy or tribulation that’s hit your life, God has a purpose in it.  It’s not random.  It’s not chance or fate.  It’s God’s purpose.

So, in God’s sovereign will, there are active facets (what God himself causes to happen) and passive facets (what God allows to happen).  Now, let me clarify so that I’m not misunderstood:  God does not cause people to sin, but He has determined or ordained that they will sin.  The Bible is absolutely full of texts that support this, but let’s look at the premiere event that illustrates this truth—the crucifixion of Christ.  We get the event itself in the Gospels, but God pulls back the curtain for us in the book of Acts and reveals to us the unseen.

  • Acts 2:22-24, Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know— 23 this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. 24 But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.
  • Acts 4:24-28, And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, 25 who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, ‘WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? 26 THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE Lord AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST.’ 27 For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

Both passages tell us that it was God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified.  The Jews and Romans freely sinned (in other words, they murdered Christ because they wanted to), but at the same time, it was God’s plan that Christ be murdered.  They did it “freely” because they did what they wanted to do.  God did not constrain them or coerce them.  Alluding to Acts 4:28, they freely did exactly what God had predestined to occur.  So, God does not make people sin, but He has determined or ordained that they will sin.

One more thing must be said concerning this truth.  Just because something is part of God’s sovereign will, that doesn’t mean He morally approves of it.  God hates murder and lying and injustice (all of which were at play in the crucifixion of Jesus), and you can rest assured that the people involved are condemned for their actions.  They did what they wanted to do!  Nevertheless, it was all a part of God’s sovereign plan.  God is completely sovereign.

God Is Good

Most certainly, God is good.  Can you imagine the tyranny that would ensue if the Sovereign God wasn’t good?  Thankfully His goodness controls His sovereignty.  Two things must be said about God’s goodness.  First, God himself in His character is good and is the final standard of good.  These texts point us to this truth:

  • Luke 18:19, And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.
  • Psalm 100:5, For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting And His faithfulness to all generations.
  • Psalm 106:1, Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  • Psalm 107:1, Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, For His lovingkindness is everlasting.
  • Psalm 34:8, O taste and see that the Lord is good; How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!

Second, all that God does is good and worthy of approval.  These texts point us to this truth:

  • Genesis 1:31, God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
  • James 1:17, Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.
  • Romans 8:28, And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

To summarize this brief doctrine of God, our good Creator God is completely sovereign.

Calamity

Everywhere you look, you see calamity—bad things.  Just pick up the daily newspaper or turn on your favorite news channel, and there you’ll see it as the leading story.  As we try to answer the “why” question, it’s necessary to understand the two types of calamity.

The first type of calamity is what we might call natural calamity because this type has “nature” as its immediate cause.  Some examples would be tragedy brought on by the following:  tornados, cancer, earthquakes, heart attacks, droughts, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, being attacked by an animal, back injuries, and miscarriages.  This type also includes what we would call accidental causes such as car accidents or falling off of a cliff, which are immediately brought on by the physical laws of nature.

The second type of calamity is what we might call moral calamity because this type has human sin as its immediate cause.  Some examples would be tragedy brought on by the following:  adultery, murder, theft, abortion, and slander.

It’s important to say that both types are a result of the Fall of Adam and Eve.  When sin entered the world, calamity of both types entered with it.  These things did not happen in the Garden of Eden before the Fall and will not be found after Christ comes back in the age to come.

But Why?

And now for the rub:  given that our Creator God is a good and complete sovereign, there is still calamity in the world.  Why is that?

We basically have three options on the “why” question from a theistic viewpoint.

Option 1 – Calamity exists because God can’t stop it. It’s in no way a part of God’s plan.  He never meant for suffering and evil to be, but due to His inability, it’s simply out of His control.  He really wants it to stop, but there’s nothing He can do about it.  The world has sort of become a Frankenstein’s monster, and the only way to stop the consequences of God’s creation is to destroy it, if He can.

Option 2 – Calamity exists because God has chosen to give humanity libertarian freedom, which they’ve misused. Again with this option, calamity is in no way a part of God’s plan.  It’s out of His control by choice.  God would have the world exist otherwise, but He’s relinquished control, and humans have taken it a different direction.  From this viewpoint, God values our libertarian freedom more than His sovereignty and our comfort.

The first two options have this commonality:  God never intended for calamity to exist.  It wasn’t part of His plan.  Of course, there is a difference between the two options.

Option 1 is blatantly unbiblical because it says that there are things in the universe that God cannot control even if He wants to.  This option flies squarely in the face of Scripture and offers us no hope.  The Bible promises that God will triumph over evil, but if He was unable to stop it in the beginning, He’ll likely be unable to stop it in the end.  This option’s basic answer is, “Sorry, stuff happens.  Just deal with it.”  You see, you can only assure that which you control.  As we’ll see in a moment, option 1 is out of the question in light of Scripture.

Option 2 is espoused by many people, but I believe it also falls short of the totality of scriptural teaching.  From this viewpoint, God has no purpose for the existence of calamity other than maintaining libertarian human freedom.  This option just doesn’t fully square with all the purposes revealed in Scripture.  Furthermore, this option is very man-centered, which the Bible is not, and again, offers us little hope in the middle of calamity.  God is posited as the “cosmic mess-cleaner-upper” who’s always trying to work our foul-ups for good.  This option basically says, “Sorry, stuff happens, but God wants to make it better.”  Many thoroughgoing, Bible-believing Christians land on this option.  Therefore, I want to tread lightly here, but as we’ll see in a moment, option 2 is not the best answer in light of Scripture.

The Best Biblical Answer

Option 3 – Calamity exists because God desires to use it for His glory and our good. From this viewpoint, calamity is part of God’s plan.  He meant for suffering and evil to be because He values His greater glory and our greater good more than our comfort.  Don’t misunderstand me here.  I’m not saying that God is evil or loves evil or does evil or makes a person do evil.  I’m saying that God, for greater purposes, chose to allow suffering and evil into His creation.

The Scripture bears forth at least 5 specific purposes for why God desires to use calamity for His glory and our good.

1)  To glorify Himself forever in His Son Jesus Christ

God’s ultimate will is that He be gloried forever in His Son Jesus Christ.  If we will get this one purpose, everything will come into focus.  Revelation 13:8 is incredibly important here, All who dwell on the earth will worship [the beast], everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain. That verse basically says that Jesus was slain from the foundation of the world.  The King James Version says it more clearly, And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Either way you slice it, Jesus dying on the cross was God’s plan before He created the world, before the Fall.  Jesus is not Plan B or the emergency plan that had to be implemented in the Garden of Eden.  Jesus is and always has been Plan A.  You see, God is both eternally love and wrath.  We see both at the cross of Christ.  Furthermore, redemption is more glorious than the perpetual Garden of Eden or consigning everybody to hell.  If God had not allowed evil into the world, there would be neither the cross nor the glory of the cross.

2)  To accomplish His purposes

Proverbs 16:4 says, The Lord has made everything for its own purpose, even the wicked for the day of evil.  We see this in the life of Joseph:

  • Genesis 50:20, As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.

We see this in the life of Pharaoh:

  • Exodus 4:21, The Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.
  • Exodus 7:3, But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart that I may multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt.
  • Romans 9:17, For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “FOR THIS VERY PURPOSE I RAISED YOU UP, TO DEMONSTRATE MY POWER IN YOU, AND THAT MY NAME MIGHT BE PROCLAIMED THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE EARTH.”

We see this in the life of Job, whose family was devastated by the Sabeans, fire from heaven, the Chaldeans, and a great wind:

  • Job 1:21-22, He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, And naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22 Through all this Job did not sin nor did he blame God.

We see this in the death of Christ, as I’ve already stated:

  • Acts 4:27-28, For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.

God never does evil or makes somebody do evil.  Furthermore, we can never use the excuse of God’s will to do evil.  God has clearly commanded in Scripture, which is the revealed will of God, to never sin.  Nevertheless, we do see from Scripture that God sinlessly uses sinful acts of humanity to accomplish His good purposes.

3)  To deepen our dependence on and hunger for God

Why do you think the gospel spreads so much more rapidly in Third World countries?  I think it’s because they don’t have all the junk that we have to pacify or satisfy them.  Many Americans aren’t impressed with the rewards God puts before us because they’re pleased enough in this life, but that’s why events of suffering and loss through calamity are so important.  They shake us out business as usual so that we’ll turn from temporal joy and be prepared for eternal joy.  It’s in these moments that we realize that all we have is Christ, and Christ really is enough.  God uses seasons of tragedy and loss to drive men to the cross of Christ for salvation and then to greater depths of dependence upon the Lord.

The Scripture bears this out:

  • Romans 5:1-5, Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
  • 2 Corinthians 4:7, But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves;
  • 2 Corinthians 12:7-10, Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me—to keep me from exalting myself! 8 Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. 9 And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. 10 Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.

4)  To make us into Christ’s likeness

Comfort and goodwill are nice, but there’s something that God desires so much more for our lives, namely that we would be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.  God does this in many ways, but one of the ways He does this is through calamity.

Notice two of several passages that bear this truth:

  • 1 Peter 4:12-13, Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you, which comes upon you for your testing, as though some strange thing were happening to you; 13 but to the degree that you share the sufferings of Christ, keep on rejoicing, so that also at the revelation of His glory you may rejoice with exultation.
  • Romans 8:28-29, And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. 29 For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren;

God loves us enough to conform us to the image of Jesus Christ.  Calamity is simply one of the tools in the Potter’s hand.

5)  To bring about judgment and discipline

For those that are not God’s children, judgment is brought about through calamity.  We see in Genesis 13:13, Now the men of Sodom were wicked exceedingly and sinners against the Lord.  This pagan city, along with Gomorrah, had become a bastion for evil.  And so what did the Lord do?  We read later on in Genesis 19:24-25, Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, 25 and He overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. The cities with their inhabitants were utterly destroyed by fire from heaven.  This example is just one of many in the Bible where God uses calamity to judge those who refuse to worship Him.

However, for those that are God’s children, calamity is used to discipline us.  The following texts point this truth out:

  • Jeremiah 19:15, Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, “Behold, I am about to bring on this city and all its towns the entire calamity that I have declared against it, because they have stiffened their necks so as not to heed My words.”
  • Hebrews 12:7, It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?
  • Revelation 3:19, Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.

Conclusion

God governs the course of history so that, in the long run, His glory will be more fully displayed, His people will be more fully satisfied in Him, and His people will be more conformed to Christ than they would have been otherwise.  Corrie ten Boom, a Jewish Christian Holocaust survivor, expresses this truth this way, “Although the threads of my life have often seemed knotted, I know, by faith, that on the other side of the embroidery there is a crown.”  An unknown poet captured the same metaphorical insight in the poem “The Plan of the Master Weaver”:

My life is but a weaving between the Lord and me,
I may not choose the colors,
He knows what they should be
For He can view the pattern upon the upper side,
While I can see it only on this, the under side…

Sometimes He weaveth sorrow, which seemeth strange to me,
But I will trust His judgement, and work on faithfully,
‘Tis He who fills the shuttle, and He knows what is best,
So I shall weave in earnest, leaving to Him the rest…

Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas and explain the reason why –
The dark threads are as needed in the Weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern He has planned.

What a beautiful way of expressing God’s truth!  The fabric of our life is made up of many threads.  Some of the individual threads are ugly and full of heartache while others are beautiful and full of gladness.  However, when we step back and gaze upon the finished product, there is beauty and glory way beyond any individual thread.  God is certainly working out a good plan!

May you entrust your souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right!

11 Jul

Lessons Learned from a Decade of Youth Ministry (1999-2008)

From the year 1999 to 2008, I had the high privilege of having youth ministry as my primary ministry.  That’s an entire decade!  Now, I know that some of you reading this will say that a decade’s nothing because you’ve been doing youth ministry for 30 years.  You’re welcome to point that out, but remember:  you risk telling how old you are!    😉    Nevertheless, during my decade, I learned so much.  Here are 10 lessons that I learned.  I pray they’ll be helpful to you.

1)  Youth can be mightily used by God.

They are easily mission-minded and often have little fear.  Sort of like the shepherd-boy David, they’re not as easily frightened by Goliath.

2)  Youth ministers don’t always see immediate results.

Maybe this lesson is one of the hardest.  We like to see the fruit our labor now, but sometimes you are simply the seed-planter and the foundation-builder.  If you work with youth, take heart.  Simply be the best minister you can be in the strength of the Lord, and leave the results up to God.  He’ll bring results, and He’s right on time!

3)  Youth will usually only go as deep and as far as their leaders take them.

They must be challenged, and they must be led!  Don’t just give them fluff.  Please don’t!  They need serious faith-, soul-, and mind-building experience and teaching.  Trust me:  they can handle it.  As for leadership, my youth pastor friend Steve Coleman always says that when ministering to youth, you must begin with the goal in mind.  What do you want them to be like at 18-years-old?  That goal determines the direction you take them.  As for leaders, a child’s primary leader is their parents.  Parents must be encouraged and equipped to train up their child in the Lord, and whatever the child gets at church is simply supplement.

4)  Youth are not the church of tomorrow.

You often hear people say this, but if a young person has repented and trusted Christ, they are the church of today.  Don’t overlook them just because they are young.  Find ways to let them serve!  Also, while they are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church leaders of tomorrow.  You’ve got to prepare them for leadership.  Refer back to #3.

5)  Youth are really looking for affirmation and will find it somewhere.

Youth are looking for someone to say, “I’m proud of you.  I love you.  You’re important.”  If the church doesn’t affirm our young people, they’ll find it somewhere, and it’s often in ways and places that are destructive.  We must be proactive in this area.  Let them know, “God loves you, and so do I.”

6)  The gap between the younger generation and older generation must be bridged.

Too often there’s a divide in churches.  The older folks never mingle with the younger folks, and vice versa.  This reality shouldn’t be.  We must work at bridging the generations.  At Crofton Baptist, this task is one that I made a priority, and I pray that a difference was made.  I think it was.  But between the younger generation and the older generation, who has the primary responsibility of trying to bridge the gap?  I believe the primary responsibility falls on the older crowd.  You’re the adults.  You’re the leaders.  Get on their level and get to know them.

7)  Youth must consistently be reminded that life is about God and not about them.

This goes for most adults too, but developmentally and culturally, the teenage years here in America seem to be filled with selfishness.  We’ve got to work on helping our young people get their eyes off of themselves and onto Jesus.  Challenge them to be like John the Baptist who said that he must decrease so that Jesus can increase.  So true!

8)  The key to a strong church youth ministry is a strong children’s ministry.

I’m trying to think of a good metaphor to illustrate this lesson.  Okay…I’ve got one.  You’ll have to decide if it’s good.

Let’s think about this in terms of driving.  In order to be a great driver, you’ve got to go through some preparation.  First, you study the driver’s manual until you’re able to pass the written driving test.  Once you’ve passed that, you get your driver’s permit.  You get to drive, but only with an adult in the car.  You practice and practice and practice some more (usually in the process your parent stops a hole in the passenger floorboard because they use their imaginary brake often) until you are able to pass the road driving test.  Once you’ve passed that, you get your full fledged driver’s license.  Each level builds on the other one.  You can’t be a good permit driver unless you did the work studying the manual.

For teens experiencing youth ministry, it’s sort of like having your driver’s permit.  They’re beginning to take on ministry and leadership, but they’ve still got adults right there with them to help them and encourage them and stomp on that imaginary brake when things begin to go bad.  Soon though, they’ll be fully responsible for ministry and leadership.   But so much of the training begins in the children’s ministry.  It’s here where they get to learn the basic precepts of the Bible that they’ll then apply more fully in the youth ministry.  No doubt, a strong children’s ministry is key to a strong youth ministry.

9)  Youth ministry is urgent.

Given that we are all born lost sinners, youth ministry is a vast mission field.  They must be reached with the gospel so that they will have life to the fullest forevermore.  Statistically speaking, see if this isn’t a wakeup call:

  • 88% of children raised in Christian families leave church at the age of 18, never to return (SBC).
  • A majority of adults no longer consider Christianity America’s default faith (Barna).
  • 64% of decisions for Christ are made before the age of 18, and 77% are made before the age of 21 (Barna).
  • An estimated 4% of the “bridger” generation, or Gen Y, will be Bible-believing Christians when they reach adulthood. Their grandparents’ generation: 65%. Their parents’ generation: 35%. (Bridger Generation by Thom S. Rainer).

We must strategically reach and disciple our young people!

10)  There’s great reward in youth ministry.

You get the opportunity to be a major influence for Christ in the lives of these young people.  Yes, it’s hard ministry sometimes, but the results are always worth it.  You get to see young people come to trust Christ, grow in their faith, impact their friends and family, serve the Lord faithfully, and start new families.  It’s a blessing to be used by God in this way!

May you serve the youth of your church well as you serve the Lord!

P.S. – I’m so thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had over the years to serve youth through church and parachurch ministries.  Thank you to Camp Loucon (Leitchfield, KY), First Assembly of God (Madison, IN), Calvary Baptist Church (Madison, IN), Adventures in Missions, Smiths Grove Baptist Church (Smiths Grove, KY), First Baptist Church (Charlestown, IN), and Crofton Baptist Church (Crofton, KY).  I’m also thankful for the opportunity to be involved in the youth ministry at West Main Baptist as much as I’m able.  God has been good to me in allowing me to minister in this way!

04 Jul

Inherit the Earth

Some of the most beloved teaching from the Scripture is found in the first 12 verses of Matthew 5, which are commonly called the Beatitudes.  These Kingdom proclamations, straight from the mouth of Jesus, are so powerful primarily because of the paradox contained in them.  Paradox is something that seems to go against common experience or common sense.  Jesus is taking the wisdom and values of the world and flipping it on its head.  In other words, Jesus says the opposite of what the world would say.

The world would say:

  • Blessed are the rich in spirit
  • Blessed are those who laugh
  • Blessed are the aggressive
  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the lusts of the world
  • Blessed are the vengeful
  • Blessed are those who do whatever their heart wants to do
  • Blessed are the warmongers
  • Blessed are those who have avoided persecution

But Jesus says that it’s the opposite in the kingdom of God, which is very striking to our hearts and minds.

Let’s zoom in for a minute and focus on the third Beatitude found in Matthew 5:5, Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth (NASB).  First, we’ll look at the proclamation.

Blessed Are the Gentle

Other translations say, “Blessed are the meek.”  The Greek word behind gentle/meek is praus.  It basically means “to be mild or soft” and was sometimes used to describe a soothing medicine or a soft breeze.  It was also used of colts and other animals whose naturally wild spirits were broken by a trainer so that they could do useful work.  As a human trait, it meant being gentle of spirit, meek, submissive, humble, quiet, and tenderhearted.  In my opinion, meek is probably the better translation since it points more toward the inward disposition whereas gentle points more toward the outward action.

It’s important to note that this beatitude is merely a repetition of what’s found in Psalm 37:11, But the humble will inherit the land and will delight themselves in abundant prosperity. Again, other translations employ the word meek instead of the word humble here.  Therefore, gentle/meek/humble are synonymous.  The entirety of Psalm 37 provides us with a great description of what gentleness/meekness/humility actually looks like.  When Jesus says that the meek are blessed, He has this Psalm 37 person in mind.

Notice the parallel between Psalm 37:11 and Psalm 37:9, those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land. The psalmist is equating meekness to waiting upon God.  We get a further sketch of what it means to be meek in Psalm 37:5-8, Commit your way to the Lord, Trust also in Him, and He will do it. 6 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light And your judgment as the noonday. 7 Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him; Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way, Because of the man who carries out wicked schemes. 8 Cease from anger and forsake wrath; Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.

First, the meek commit their way to God (v5).  The Hebrew word for commit means literally to roll onto. Therefore, meek people have discovered that God is trustworthy, and so they roll their “way”—their business, their problems, their relationships, their health, their fears, their frustrations—onto the Lord. They admit that they are insufficient to cope with the complexities and pressures and obstacles of life and trust that God is able and willing to sustain them and guide them and protect them.

Second, the meek trust in God (v5).  They believe that He will work for them and vindicate them when others oppose them. Biblical meekness is rooted in the deep confidence that God is for you and not against you.

Third, the meek rest in God (v7).  This doesn’t mean they become lazy. It means that they’re free of frenzy. They have a kind of steady calm that comes from knowing that God is omnipotent, that he has their affairs under his control, and that he is gracious and will work things out for the best. Meek people have a quiet steadiness about their lives in the midst of upheaval.  They’re satisfied and quiet before their God because they know that God has given them all that they need and will never forsake them.  They can be still and cease from striving because they know that God is God (Psalm 46:10).

Fourth, the meek wait patiently for God (v7).  They know that God has a perfect plan that He is working out in His own timing.  God is always right on time and will bring victory.

Fifth, the meek do not fret about evildoers (v7).  They have an eternal perspective.  The wicked are like the chaff and will be blown away on the Day of Judgment.  Even though it looks like the wicked are prospering and overtaking the earth, that’s just not the case in the long run because the Lord will judge and vindicate.

Finally, the meek cease from anger and wrath (v8).  Their family and work and life are in God’s sovereign hands.  They trust God and wait patiently and quietly to see how his power and goodness will work things out.  Because of this, the setbacks and obstacles and opponents of life do not produce the kind of bitterness and anger and fretfulness that is so common among men.

So, a meek person is one who commits his way to God, trusts in God, rests in God, waits for God, doesn’t fret over the wicked, and refrains from anger and wrath.  In looking at the list, it’s important to keep two things in mind.

  1. These traits are a fruit of the Spirit.  These are what God works in us as He’s conforming us to the image of Christ.  In a sense, God blesses His own work in us!
  2. Keep in mind that biblical meekness is a direct result of seeing God as the sovereign Lord of the universe.  This isn’t just some personality trait.  There are people who just seem to be naturally meek and mild.  Maybe they were beat down as a child or that’s just their constitution.  But what the Bible is talking about is something that comes about because we get the right perspective on God and history.

Now back to Matthew 5.  The key question to understand this beatitude is:  on whom are you dependent?  Are you dependent upon you, or are you dependent upon God?  A man dependent upon himself will either take matters into his own hands with powerfulness to will an outcome, or he will be paralyzed on the sideline in powerlessness.  His ability and potency begins and ends with himself.  He can go only as far as he can take himself.  He’s dependent upon his own limited, weak vision and wisdom.  But the man who is dependent upon God will give matters to God, who is the omnipotent, omniscient, omni-wise God of the universe.  No one or no thing can stay His hand.  No one or no thing can hide from His gaze.  He always does what is best and in the best way.  In order to be meek and gentle, a person must be dependent upon God.

How are you doing in this area?  I read this week a striking quote from my pastor friend, Brandon Porter at his blog, “We only know His strength, favor and power through faith when we turn away from our self-sufficiency and live dependently upon Him. It is a strange concept. When children grow up we mark their maturity by their independence. When Christians grow in the faith the Bible marks their maturity by their dependence upon God. We are never supposed to aim at self-sufficiency. That is not a flaw in humanity; it is God’s design.”  Are you growing in dependence upon God?  Your growth in dependence will directly affect your gentleness.

Let’s briefly look at the reason behind Jesus’ proclamation.

For They Shall Inherit the Earth

Jesus says that the gentle/meek are blessed because they shall inherit the earth.  In this age, your meekness might cause you to never set foot on a piece of ground that’s deeded to you, but in the age to come, the meek are awarded the entire earth.  What a blessing!  Paradise lost by us will be paradise restored to us when Jesus returns.  Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

May your gentleness abound and your reward be great!